Cardinals rookie Hightower making mark

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Cardinals and Jets will field two of the older offensive backfields even beyond the quarterback position when the teams face off in Week 4.

Arizona's Edgerrin James and New York's Thomas Jones are 30. Jets fullback Tony Richardson is 36. Don't be surprised if Cardinals rookie running back Tim Hightower looks even faster than usual. He turned 22 in May and gives Arizona a more dynamic alternative to James' grind-it-out approach.

The fifth-round draft choice from Richmond is looking like the future starter, but the Cardinals aren't waiting to use him. Hightower rushed five times for 23 yards against the Redskins in Week 3. He also caught three passes for 38 yards. The Cardinals targeted Hightower as a runner or receiver on six of their 11 third-down plays, converting twice. Overall, the Cardinals handed off or threw toward Hightower 11 times in 56 plays, or 19.6 percent of the time.

James averaged better than 5 yards a carry against the Redskins, but the Cardinals are among only four teams without a running play of at least 20 yards this season (the Jets are another). James remains the established runner between the tackles. Hightower provides more big-play potential.

I've isolated each Week 3 play featuring Hightower, providing detailed notes on each in an effort to better understand how the Cardinals are using their promising rookie runner:

First quarter

  • Third-and-2 from the Washington 42. Offset-I formation with three wide receivers. Toss right side for 1 yard. Right tackle Levi Brown and fullback Tim Castille both block linebacker Marcus Washington on the outside. Brown comes off his block to find linebacker London Fletcher. Center Lyle Sendlein hustles over and helps on Fletcher. Receiver Anquan Boldin blocks defensive end Jason Taylor (Boldin is unbelievable as a blocking receiver; more on him later). The play breaks down when the Cardinals fail to account for linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

Second quarter

  • Third-and-17 from the Arizona 23. Four wide receivers and Hightower. Empty backfield. Kurt Warner finds Hightower underneath for a 14-yard gain.

  • First-and-10 from the Arizona 29. Two wide receivers, two running backs, one tight end. Offset-I formation. Boldin motions left. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald is wide right. Redskins show a seven-man front. Left guard Reggie Wells misses his block on defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, giving Griffin a shot at Hightower in the backfield. Hightower makes Griffin miss, escaping outside left for 10 yards. Tight end Leonard Pope delays defensive end Andre Carter just enough. Boldin clears out cornerback Shawn Springs on the edge. Hightower's speed and elusiveness make this play work.

  • Third-and-2 from the Arizona 47. Four wide receivers and Hightower. Boldin, Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban are bunched with Hightower outside the right tackle. Fitzgerald is wide left. Warner throws to Hightower on a play designed for the rookie. Boldin drives Springs at least 10 yards downfield. Brown gets into Fletcher, with Sendlein providing backup support. Wells, having run across the field from his spot at left guard, cannot quite get to free safety Reed Doughty outside the numbers on the right side. Doughty makes the tackle after a 6-yard gain.

  • First-and-10 from the Washington 22. Three wide receivers and a tight end. Hightower alone in the backfield behind Warner. Warner throws left side for Urban. Urban throws back across the field to Hightower for an 18-yard gain to the 4. The Redskins made no apparent contact with Hightower, but the rookie failed to get up and keep running.

  • Third-and-4 from the Arizona 10. Three wide receivers and two running backs. Offset-I formation. Warner hands off to Hightower for a 6-yard gain. Boldin's reversal into the backfield for a potential handoff freezes Taylor while right guard Deuce Lutui occupies defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander. The play comes with one minute remaining in the half.

Third quarter

  • First-and-10 from the Washington 10. Three wide receivers and one tight end. Hightower alone in the backfield behind Warner. Hightower gains only 1 yard on the run. It's tough to know exactly where the play went wrong. Hightower went right when he might have had more room to the left. But Griffin might have forced Hightower that way after freeing himself from Lutui in a crowd. Hightower ran right into McIntosh.

  • Third-and-goal from the 9. Three wide receivers and one tight end. Hightower alone in the backfield behind Warner. Warner faces immediate pressure. He throws right side for Hightower, but the Redskins tip the pass incomplete.

Fourth quarter

  • First-and-10 from the Washington 45. Three wide receivers. Offset-I formation. Boldin lines up as a tight end on the right side. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley had sought improved blocking on the second level. The Cardinals get great push up front. Lutui moves out defensive tackle Kedric Golston. The play gains 5 yards.

  • Second-and-4 from the Arizona 48. Four wide receivers. The Redskins bat down the pass before it gets to Hightower.

  • Third-and-4 from the Arizona 48. Four wide receivers. Warner throws away the ball near Hightower, but the rookie never had a chance to make a play.